Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Iroquoian Nations



[This text was written in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the text. Further information on the Iroquois may be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of North American Indians and at the Native American Languages' site]


Iroquoian: a linguistic stock of North American Indians composed of the Iroquois confederation (the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca, and after 1722 the Tuscarora), the Hurons, the Tobacco nation, the Neutrals, and in later times the incorporated remnants of a number of other tribes. Each tribe was an independent political unit, except those that had formed leagues or confederations in which the constituent tribes, while enjoying local self-government, acted jointly in common affairs. For this reason there was no general name for themselves common to all the tribes.


When Jacques Cartier visited the Gaspé peninsula and the shores of the St. Lawrence in 1534 and subsequent years, he found there people of Iroquoian stock, probably tribes of the Huron group; but when Champlain visited these territories three-quarters of a century later, he found there only people of the Algonkian stock. The change he believed due to "a destruction of people"; and it seems probable that the Hurons had been driven from the St. Lawrence valley by their enemies of the Iroquois confederation. This was perhaps the beginning of that long feud which culminated in the virtual extermination of the Hurons by the Iroquois in 1649. The Algonkians met by Champlain were probably roving bands that passed over the area on hunting or warlike expeditions; for the Algonkians bounded on the north the territory occupied by the tribes of Iroquoian stock.


The northern Iroquoian tribes, especially the Iroquois proper (the so-called Five Nations), were second to no other Indian people north of Mexico in political organization, statecraft, and military prowess. Their leaders were astute diplomats, as the English and French with whom they treated soon discovered. They were ruthless in war, and subjected their prisoners, even women and children, to the cruellest tortures; but they were far from being merely a race of savage and ferocious warriors. Their wars were waged primarily to secure and perpetuate their political life and independence; and in peace they were kindly and affectionate, fond of their children, deferential to their women, sympathetic toward their kindred in distress, and anxious for a secure peace. The motive underlying their leagues and confederations was the securing of universal peace and welfare among men through the establishment of a form of civil government based on a kind of public law. Their conception of law was primitive, and was based primarily on blood relationship; but it was fully as far advanced as that of the Anglo-Saxons when they conquered England .


The social organization of the Iroquoian tribes was similar to that of other Indians, but it was much more complex and cohesive, and there was a notable difference in regard to the important position occupied by the women. Among the Iroquois and the Hurons, the women performed essential functions. Every chief was chosen, and every important measure was enacted, with the consent and co-operation of the child-bearing women; and lands and houses belonged solely to the women.


All the Iroquoian tribes were sedentary and agricultural, depending on the chase for only a small part of their subsistence. They were especially noted for their skill in fortification and house-building. They built solid log-structures, with platforms running around the top on the inside, from which missiles could be hurled upon the besiegers.


The numbers of the tribes belonging to the Iroquoian stock are difficult to assess, partly owing to the ease with which they absorbed in their confederations kindred tribes, and partly owing to the decimation which took place at various times through warfare. At no time, however, it may be confidently asserted, were their numbers at all commensurate with their military prowess, or with the influence they exerted on the course of events. At the coming of the white man, the Hurons and the Iroquois numbered each in the neighbourhood of 16,000 persons; and it is probable that the whole of the Iroquoian stock did not after this exceed the number of 40,000.


Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, "Iroquoian Family", in The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. 3, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 281-283.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College